Is there a hidden cost to low-fee private schools?

Owing to how abysmal the public education system in South Africa is—present tense, not “has become”. The present, like the past, is not perfect—low-fee private schools have become flavour of the moment. According to a 2010 report by liberal-minded think tank the Centre for Enterprise and Development: “a more competitive environment providing schooling options at all fee levels can only benefit the national quest for improved education.”

While the thought of competition and commerce around a constitutionally enshrined right might be nauseating for some, the CDE pointed to similar examples of private schooling for the poor in Colombia, India, Ghana and other developing countries as evidence that the model will work and should be implemented here. The think tank also gave a raring endorsement of the model in terms of learner performance, schools quality, teacher development and parent participation when compared to equivalent South African public schools.

Using the findings of its research, the CDE also questioned the government’s policy priority of providing fee-free schooling when “our study indicates that paying for schooling plays a significant role in making principals and teachers more accountable to parents.”

There’ve been some developments since. As a Financial Times headline declared breathlessly earlier this year: South Africa’s private schools are booming. The boom, it would appear, has only just begun.

Curro Holdings, possibly the largest player in the South African low-fee private school sector, last month partnered with insurance giant Old Mutual and the Public Investment Company, investment manager for the bulk of the Government Employees Pension Fund’s over $130 billion in assets. Under the partnership, Old Mutual and the PIC will over the next seven years provide the financial backing  that will see Curro open eight new low-fee private schools and continue to manage the existing three.

But hold the violins. There’s something in it for the funders. “These schools, called Meridian independent schools, will meet the criteria specified by the (Old Mutual) schools fund by achieving both quality education outcomes and a commercially acceptable return for investors,” according to Old Mutual.

Other players, like 1886 Investments Limited, a subsidiary of the Commonwealth Education Trust, are at advanced stages of investing in the low-fee private school market here. Not to be left behind, home-grown start-up Eadvance is also rolling out its own “affordable private schools”.

This all sounds fabulous. However some, particularly NGOs, are questioning where the low-fee school model fits in the millennium development goal of universal primary education. They say the two are at odds.

Speaking to the Guardian, ActionAid head of programme development David Archer suggested that the move toward low-fee private schools is a setback for the movement to abolish school fees, a key UN initiative to increase primary school enrolments in Africa and other parts of the developing world, particularly for girls. Archer was responding to Pearson’s announcement of a $15 million fund to invest in low-fee private schools in Africa and Asia, starting with Ghana’s Omega Schools.

Given apartheid’s legacy of a tiered education systems, other questions arise for South Africa: Does the low-fee private school, which charges about R900 a month on average create another, differently resourced tier between “proper” private schools and inadequate public schools? Does this not further entrench a class system of different rights and access for different income levels? And what of the public education system—should companies like Old Mutual be profiteering from its failure or be using their resources to push for its reform, if they are the corporate citizens they say they are?

Questions like these, unfortunately, are likely to devolve into the semantics of economic outlooks.

The CDE is continuing its work and research into low-fee private schools and has said government should adjust its education policy such that it creates an environment where quality schooling will expand, regardless of whether the providers are public, private or a combination of both. I remain unconvinced and tend to agree with Archer, who says primary education should be free and should be left in the hands of the state. And—this is me extending his argument—private investment should be into increasing the state’s capacity to provide quality, no-fee basic education.

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